the role of intergenerational relationships in adults’ (non)use of information technologies

paper for Special Session: ‘Coming of age? The geographies of intergenerational relationships’, RGS-IBG conference, London UK, 28th-31st August 2007

Neil Selwyn London Knowledge Lab Institute of Education, University of London, UK

the role of intergenerational relationships in adults’ (non)use of information technologies
Abstract: This paper explores the role of intergenerational relationships in facilitating, supporting and shaping adults’ (non)engagement with IT. Based on data from in-depth interviews (n=100) the paper describes the varying roles that intergenerational relationships with others play in adults’ acquisition and adoption of computers, whilst also highlighting the inequalities inherent in such contact. Despite the diversity of others available to support IT use, most adults’ use of computers was found to take place within narrow, ‘traditional’ social networks; drawn predominantly from individuals’ existing kinship networks. These others acted as important sources of information (especially in the initial stages of acquisition) but also played vital roles in enabling and, in some cases, regulating respondents’ access to technology. Once having acquired access to IT, many adults’ ongoing use of IT was then subject to negotiated collaboration (or conflict) with others; fitting IT around the existing dynamics and patterns of everyday life and social relationships. The paper concludes with a discussion of how although these tensions appear to often lead to the social reproduction of inequalities (especially in terms of gender, age and stage of ‘adulthood’) they were also being used, in some cases, to empower non-IT using individuals.


the role of intergenerational relationships in adults’ (non)use of information technologies
Introduction With new technologies now an integral part of the social, economic and cultural fabric of developed societies, it is taken as given that all adults should be making some use of information technology (IT) in their day-to-day lives. Indeed, one of the key features of the twenty-first century ‘information society’ is a pervading moral imperative for adults of all ages to be able to use ITs to survive, and hopefully thrive, as citizens, employees and consumers. So the fact that use of IT is not evenly distributed across the adult population is cause presently for political concern. The spectre of the ‘digital divide’ – political shorthand for the entrenched social stratification of IT use along the lines of age, socio-economic status, gender, race and disability – is now a major issue for policymakers and academics who are seeking to understand and address inequalities in people’s (non)engagement with IT (e.g. Selwyn and Facer 2007, van Dijk 2006). Although often described in terms of levels of non-engagement with ITs amongst specific social groups, attempts to address the digital divide have been conceptualised primarily at the level of the individual. In the first instance individual citizens are expected to take responsibility for engaging with ITs in the home, community and/or workplace. Where individuals are unable to do so, governments have developed a range of interventions where those lacking the requisite technological access or skills (the ‘have nots’ in digital divide parlance) can be compensated via public provision of hardware, software and training. Once these basic inequalities of opportunity have been addressed then, to appropriate the title of a recent UK government report, it is left to the individual to ‘get on with IT’ themselves. Indeed, having reached what could be considered to be adequate levels of IT availability via the domestic marketplace and community provision, governments in many developed nations have begun recently to downplay and even dismiss the existence of a digital divide (see Selwyn 2006). Yet viewing (non)use of IT purely in technical terms of individuals’ technological access obscures the many social factors within which technology use is embedded. In particular, other people are often overlooked as an integral element of how adults engage, or not, with ITs such as computers and the internet. Although some authors are keen to evoke notions of the individual computer user “[sitting] alone in front of a keyboard and a screen” (Wellman 2001, p.2031) separated from the ‘world of humanity’ (Healy 1998), using IT is not a completely individualistic and isolated activity. Indeed, ‘significant others’ represent a crucial element of accessing and engaging effectively with IT, with the size and nature of an individual’s network of relevant social contacts identified as underpinning the development and sustenance of their use of IT (Di Maggio & Hargittai, 2001; Fountain, 1997). Any computer user should recognise from personal experience how their use of IT is increasingly about being able to draw upon ‘expert’ sources of support to help utilise ever-powerful computer systems that the vast majority of users will never fully use, let alone understand. As Kitchen (1998: 112) observes “we are becoming increasingly reliant on ‘computer experts’ … to guide us through the rapid developments and sort out our daily problems”. Aside from formal ‘experts’ such as technical support found in the workplace, the importance of less formal ‘warm experts’ in the development of computer use should also be recognised – i.e. friends, family members and other personal contacts not necessarily with


formal technological expertise who nonetheless act as competent mediators between the technology and the lay-user (Bakardjieva 2005). This combination of formal and informal sources of technical expertise is therefore an integral part of what Giacquita et al. (1993) refer to as the ‘social envelope’ of computer use. As Seither (2003, p.103) concludes: “friendships, kin networks and work relationships are crucial to the successful adoption of new technologies such as computers. Computer use often involves borrowing software, troubleshooting problems, trying out new programs, boasting or discussing successes, cross checking machines. Advice and encouragement are important components of this”. Researching the role of intergenerational significant others in adults’ use of IT The significance of these different forms of expertise and support is most commonly framed in theoretical terms of ‘social capital’. Social capital can be seen as social obligations or connections between an individual and networks of other significant individuals, organisations and institutions that can be called upon for mobilisation of their own material resources, knowledge, skills or ‘know-how’ (see Coleman 1988, Putnam 1993). Although conceptually useful, the theoretical predications of social capital have tended to steer media and communications researchers towards questions of how IT use shapes an individual’s social contacts rather than how social contacts may shape an individual’s IT use. For example, many researchers have explored how ITs may provide new ways of sustaining and ‘generating’ social capital in offline and online communities (e.g. Resnick 2002, Wellman 2001). Much of empirical work on IT and social capital has examined how ‘computer supported social networks’ influence patterns of social contact and solidarity in society (e.g. Wellman et al. 1996, Quan-Haase et al. 2002, Kavanaugh and Patterson 2002). Whilst this body of literature rightly reflects the importance of IT as a means of communication and contact with others, it has perhaps distracted the attention of social researchers away from the more prosaic, but nevertheless important, role of social contact between and across generations in supporting and shaping (both materially and conceptually) people’s use of IT. That said, a few studies have sought to shed light on the role of others in shaping adults’ IT use. For example, Wyatt et al.’s (2003) study of people’s use of the internet for seeking health information identified the importance of others such as close friends in assisting individuals at all stages of the inquiry process; from the initial appropriation of computers, development of computer skills and the eventual making sense of information retrieved from websites. Wyatt’s work echoes Graham Murdock’s earlier ethnographic study of computer use in an English housing estate which identified networks of friends, relatives, neighbours and other local sources of technological expertise as underpinning individuals’ computer use via the ‘borrowing’ of equipment, exchanging of software and swapping of information and anecdotes (Murdock et al. 1996). Other ethnographic studies looking at adults’ and children’s domestic use of ITs have also reported peer-to-peer mentoring from partners, children, friends and work-colleagues to be a common method of learning to use computers (Lally 2002, Facer et al. 2003). Although implicit in many of these studies, the issue of inter-generational support has been often glossed over within the new media literature above and beyond the specific patterns of media engagement within the stages of childhood/youth and (to a lesser extent) old age. If considered at all, intergenerational concerns have been portrayed usually within an exaggeratedly (dis)empowered model of older adults’ (un)successful engagement with ITs where older ICT users are either portrayed as omnipotent ‘silver surfers’ who are fully wired-up and technologically active, or else marooned in a technological ‘grey gap’ and comfortable only with televisions, telephones and transistor radios. Besides these caricatured extremes, little attention is paid to the role of generational relations in what older (and


younger) adults are doing with ITs, and how engagement may vary between individuals and social groups. Against this background we would contend that more attention should be paid to the key question (especially in terms of the ‘digital divide’ debate) of how intergenerational relationships with significant others of all ages may alleviate or exacerbate inequalities in IT use between different social groups. Given the obvious importance of others in framing and shaping an individual’s (non)engagement with IT, the present paper seeks to develop a more thorough understanding of the influence of others on how adults either do, or do not, “make sense of, give meaning to, and accomplish functions through technical objects” (Caron and Caronia 2001, p.39). To frame this enquiry we can draw upon media and communications research over the last two decades which have explored the ways in which information technologies are appropriated and incorporated into people’s day-to-day lives (e.g. Berker et al. 2006, Silverstone and Hirsch 1992). This approach highlights an ongoing process of gaining possession and ownership, objectification within the spatial and aesthetic environments of the home or workplace and the eventual incorporation into the routines of daily life (Silverstone et al. 1992). Using this framework we can question the role(s) of others in the different stages of adults’ adoption of IT, i.e.: their initial acquisition of computers; the development of ongoing forms of access to computers and their ongoing use of computers. The present paper therefore goes on to address the following research questions:

• • • •

Who are the ‘significant others’ whom adults from different generations draw upon for support when engaging with IT? In what ways are different people from different generations being used to support adults’ IT use and what is the nature of support being provided? How may forms of inter-generational support be related to actual (non)use of IT? How may patterns and relationships between adults from different generations be patterned according to salient demographic characteristics (such as gender, age, socio-economic status, household composition, technological access and experience)?

Research Methods The present paper draws on data from a now completed two year research project examining overall patterns of IT use by adults1. The project focused on four local authorities in the west of England and South Wales, chosen in terms of representativeness for population density, economic activity and levels of educational attainment. The paper presents an analysis of data collected from indepth, semi-structured interviews with 100 respondents covered by an initial household survey of 1001 adults aged 21 years and over. This sub-sample of 100 interviewees was selected to include equivalent numbers of individuals with high/low levels of technology use and high/low educational background; with additional criteria of selection including age, socio-economic status, geography (urban/rural) and ethnicity. As we specifically wished to elicit the voices of individual adults the interviews were conducted without the presence of other family members. Interviews lasted between forty minutes and one-and-a-half hours and focused on individual’s technological histories and present technological activities as well as their domestic, educational and employment ‘careers’. In this sense, the interviews approached a life history or life story method in that they were focused on eliciting individual’s experiences through a chronological autobiography of home and family, education, work and technology


use (see Dhunpath 2000). From this basis the paper now goes on to consider the interview data in terms of the three broad stages of acquisition, access and using (and learning to use) computers.

Research Findings 1 - The role of others in adults’ acquisition of computers Others were most commonly featured within our interviewees’ accounts of the early stages of their acquisition of computers. Initial encounters with computers often involved others, either as direct ‘introducers’ to the technology or as providers of informal ‘frames of reference’ soon after initial contact. Direct introduction through others often took place within formal settings such as work or school, where IT use was a required rather than a chosen activity. Within this process of formal introduction (which often first involved others in formal roles such as school teacher or work technician), friends and family were cited frequently as providing ‘follow-up’ frames of reference – helping individuals to actually make sense of computers through informal combinations of family and self-help: How did you learn to use the computer at work? I read the book … the manual that came with it to start with and then I bought a couple of computer books and picked it up from that. My lad showed me a lot because he was at home with me then. [Male, 63 years, partly skilled2] Aside from the workplace or place of study, coerced introductions to IT also took place informally via family members and friends who were keen to ‘induct’ individuals into computer use. More so than at work, these informal introductions were often of an intergenerational nature. Instances of such informal coercion were particularly evident between grown children and their ageing parents. As this man, whose daughters both worked with IT, explained: It’s [my daughter] actually, who keeps saying to me, ‘Dad, you know, here’s my computer, use it, otherwise you’ll lose it’. And my eldest daughter … she also encourages me, because when I go over to their offices, she’ll say, ‘sit down at the computer, Dad, have a go – do this letter for me’ [Male, 69 years, partly skilled] Similar forms of technological ‘evangelism’ were sometimes experienced by respondents with computer-using friends of a similar age; with varying degrees of success. As this non-computer user reported: “I go to friends’ homes and they say, ‘come and look at this’ and they fiddle about a bit and it seems to take ages to get onto it and then they press the wrong key or something and it’s not engaged” [Male, 72 years, service]. The last example notwithstanding, these initial introductions were reported as eventually guiding many of our interviewees into sustained engagement with IT. Although the initial decision to acquire a computer often tied in with personal lifestyle or life stage transitions such as changes in jobs or retirement (Anderson and Tracey 2001), others played a prominent part in the subsequent decision and acquisition processes. This was most obvious for those individuals in dependent financial arrangements with others. For example, some of our younger interviewees reported computers first being bought for them by parents. As one respondent explained, his present interest in IT stemmed from his childhood use of a computer purchased by his father:


When I was young my dad bought us a ZX Spectrum, one of the early 16k ones, I guess ‘cause he wanted us to find out about computers and keep up to date himself … and I just learnt how to program from there … and now I just don’t want to let knowledge go to waste. [Male, 33 years, partly skilled] Correspondingly, our interviews with parents of younger children reflected an “intense social pressure on parents to buy a computer” (Lally 2002). This was experienced, if not acted upon, by male and female respondents of all socioeconomic groups. As this father of a three year old daughter argued, “it will be a necessity, eventually. She’s got to be just a bit older yet … Mainly it’s finance … but eventually, we’re going to have to, for madam … We just haven’t got the money” [Male, 43 years, skilled manual]. Many of our interviews with parents repeated the specific discourse of investing in children’s education. Providing access to a computer in the home was therefore approached by some interviewees and their families as a contemporary means of cultural capital (Sefton-Green and Buckingham 1998) - a notion raised by respondents of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds: I just felt it was something you should have. My mother died and left me some money and I thought what better way to use it than set [my daughters and grandchildren] up with a computer each. [Female, 62 years, service] [My boyfriend’s] mum bought [a second hand PC] for us the Christmas before my daughter was born. So, it was mainly for when she gets bigger and we can then sort of teach her how to use it. I’m sure by the time she’s old enough to go out to work that’s all there’s going to be [Female, 23 years, unskilled/other] Our interviews with older adults and their grown children revealed a notable reversal of this generational dynamic, with sons and daughters providing their older parents with computers. Inter-generational ‘passing-on’ of computers was often reported by older respondents involving the acquisition (rather than purchase) of computers from children; sometimes appearing to be an unsolicited ‘dumping’ of second-hand equipment. As this respondent recalls: My stepson arrived for my birthday in August and he said, ‘I’ve brought you a present’ and he put it on the floor there and it was his old computer, fully set up. Well, he plugged it in and set it up, put it on the internet, everything was done for me. And I would have never gone into that, if I hadn’t been pushed by [him]. He just pushed me willy-nilly into the whole internet fiasco. [Male, 61 years, service] This inter-generational ‘disposal’ (see Hetherington 2003) was not always an empowering or even useful experience for older adults. As a non computer-using recipient of such a donation reflected, “it was plonked on me really” [Female, 57 years, skilled non-manual]. Another remarked, “I still have no interest in computers really” [Male, 72 years, service]. These forms of mutual aid and unpaid exchange were not confined specifically to older respondents on lower incomes, with many of our more affluent respondents also acquiring and using computers from others via non-market means. That said there were noticeable differences in the nature and power dynamics of these exchanges, as this wife of a recently retired business executive describes:


My nephew, Timothy, is in the business. He sets up these systems all over the world. So when Timothy set his father up [with a better computer] my husband had already said ‘look, can have we have the next one in line when Timothy’s sorted you out’. So that’s how we got one. I think most people like us get them like that. Our friends who have [computers], none of them have bought them; they’ve retired and it’s been part of the retirement package [because] the incoming chappie wants the latest allsinging, all-dancing affair. [Female, 65 years, service] In this manner, the acquisition of computers through others was often an inherently shared activity; with all but a few interviewees reporting acquiring a computer with the involvement of others at some stage of the acquisition process. The intergenerational nature of this support was dependent on the stage of adulthood. For some interviewees, more often than not women, partners or spouses were reported as bringing computers into the household. Yet other respondents who were lacking immediate ‘IT rich’ sources of support within their family networks were driven sometimes towards alternative means of gaining necessary social support. In a few cases local ‘IT users’ were sought to act as guides through the acquisition process. These tended to be neighbours or other local individuals known in the community to be ‘professional’ IT users. Such surrogate assistance could also be obtained by purchasing a computer from local individuals or businesses with the intention of then utilising the vendor’s knowledge and expertise once the purchase had taken place. One widow had, for example, purchased deliberately a computer from a small, local independent shop because “I knew that he would be able to help me buy one and that I could go back to him when I was getting used to it” [female, 57 years, partly skilled]. An office worker from a rural market town had similarly chosen to use her next-door neighbour who operated an unofficial business “… specialis[ing] in finding computer systems for people’s needs, so he actually comes out… He does quite a few – come into your home and sort things out for you and if you’ve got a problem, ring up”. This neighbour had proved invaluable in then “giv[ing] me a couple of basic lessons .. the basics of turning it on. How to get into the programs and basic examples … and then it was just find out for myself, playing with it” [female, 29 years, skilled non-manual]. In highlighting the range of social contacts used by our respondents it is important to note that even the most plentiful sources of support from others did not necessarily lead to successful IT acquisition. Instead, successful acquisition remained contingent upon the individual’s own valuing of IT and intrinsic motivation to acquire a computer. This is illustrated by this young mother who confessed to ‘hating’ using computers at school. Most people she knew who owned a computer used them for entertainment (‘either DVDs or games’). From this perspective the computer was an almost useless addition to the household, despite the opportunities provided to her through her extended family and the informal economy of her housing estate: We had a computer, my uncle brought me a computer but I gave it away and people say ‘well you should have kept it for the boys’ but they got a PlayStation upstairs so they don’t need one. Did you ever get it out of the box? No I just looked at it and then gave it away, my uncle thinks it is up in the attic but its not. Why did he give it to you? Was it one that he was throwing away? No, I must have been drunk and he works for a computer place and he said ‘do you want me to pick you one up for you and the boys?’. And I was like ‘yeah alright’ and then he brings this big bloody box in and on the back of the box it showed you what leads go into where and I thought that ‘it just


has to go’. The booklet was about ‘that’ thick and I just thought ‘it has to go’. Was your uncle really keen on you having one? Yeah, he always says ‘how you doing on your computer?’ and I say ‘I’m just reading the book’. God knows what I’m going to say in a year’s time. Has he only just got it for you? Yes a couple of months back. I will just say the kids dropped it on the floor or something, just blame it on them. [Female, 21-40 years age group, partly skilled]

2 - The role of others in facilitating adults’ access to computers If the role of significant others was, in most cases, one of enabling the acquisition of computers, this influence became more ambiguous in relation to the ensuing integration of computers in adults’ everyday lives. This was particularly evident in terms of how others facilitated adults’ access to computers. Whereas some significant others continued to encourage and provide ready access, more often than not, others played a more double-edged role; especially if they were also users of the computers in question. For example, once a computer was purchased within households with younger children a range of bargaining and ‘co-operative conflict’ often then took place between adults and children (Pugh 1997). Our interview data suggest that the place of parents within these negotiated ‘hierarchies of use’ (Holloway & Valentine 2003) differed according to existing household structures and dynamics as well as adults’ interest in, and need to use, the computer themselves. Some households employed highly structured but democratic means to allot ‘computer time’ to different household members; “we sit and discuss at tea-time and we look at needs” [female, 50 years, service]. However, the negotiation of use in many households was often less explicit, with IT being subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) coded at a symbolic level as ‘belonging to’ specific members of the household. In this way others often curtailed adults’ practical access to computers. For example, in some households children had immediately become the predominant users of the ‘home’ computer, either “hogging the computer all the time” (female, 42 years, service) or in the case of this mother, assuming physical as well as symbolic ownership: I use [the computer] very rarely now. I suppose because it’s – it’s an excuse, I guess – it’s in [my daughter’s] bedroom … Because it’s in her bedroom, I tend not to use it so much. And when she first had it, she wouldn’t use it all the time. She’d go on it occasionally and I would pop on it now and then. When she comes home from school she always seems to be up there or back and forth. And it’s in her room, so I tend not to use it so much. [Female, 46 years, skilled non-manual] This inhibition of access was also apparent within the all-adult relationships highlighted in the earlier data. The restrictive influence of ‘dominant’ adult users in the household is illustrated by the case of a part-time translator and housewife. As this interviewee initially recounted: “my husband always says, ‘you’ve got all day, why don’t you go on the Internet?’”. Yet this interviewee’s failure to have ever used the computer was not as straight-forward as ‘evading’ her ostensibly clear opportunities to use the family computer. As she went on to explain, her ability to take advantage of this offer was limited by her husband and sons: “they always fight over it, you know. So if I come along I feel I’m intruding” [female, 35 years, skilled non-manual]. Another female interviewee explained that although “computers have always been around me” she was unable to use the home


computer until her husband dealt with a long-standing technical problem: “When Steve gets this [computer] sorted maybe I will” [female, 52 years, skilled nonmanual]. Aside from being gendered this mediation was often age-related; as can be seen in the case of this older adult who had initially made some use of a donated computer system until his daughter had started to ‘borrow’ elements of it back; “I used to use my daughter’s actually, and do it on that. The only thing is, she’s nicked the printer from it! … One of these days she’ll come over and pick her laptop back!” [male, 69 years, partly skilled].

3 - The role of others in supporting and sustaining adults’ use of computers Having acquired a computer and negotiated some form of access, the actual process of using IT tended to be social for many of our interviewees. For most interviewees significant others were only contacted and drawn upon when help or advice was needed. These forms of user support were again more often to be found within family networks rather than with friends, neighbours or work colleagues. This tendency to rely on family members was consistent across socioeconomic groups and gender: I suppose it’s all quite logical using the computer, isn’t it, really? And I think if I get stuck Susanna [daughter] comes, she’ll be home, you know, after school… And I’ll ring up Will or Fiona, you know, the other two – and they can sort of say and see what’s going on … I’ve got a network of family that I can actually use. [Female, 54 years, service] I just pick up the phone and ring [my son] up. He tells me what to do … He’s got two or three of his mates that are into computers. They sit down and chat and go over the pub and they’re sitting down and talking computers. And he gets all the information. He keeps up with it, you know. There was a virus the other week and he just phoned me up and said, ‘Delete it quick, there’s a virus going round’. So I did, you know. So is it just your son then, or is there anyone else… Nobody round here is really into computers, I don’t think. Not that I know of … the bloke next door, he’s got a computer … but I never bother them, I just ring my son up, any problems. [Male, 63 years, skilled non-manual] In terms of using a computer we found very few instances of sustained ‘communities of practice’ outside of the close family or workplace. When people did use computers regularly with others for non-work or study purposes this tended to involve younger males for whom using IT was a major leisure interest. Here IT-related social contact and support was sometimes sustained in online as well as face-to-face forms. One respondent used computers for leisure purposes on an almost daily basis with two work-colleagues who he described as “really know[ing] what they’re doing”. As well as relying on each other as expert sources of advice these men also regularly played online games after work. Our respondent described it as an easy “way of playing with my mates after work, as well as working with them during the day” [male, 33 years, partly skilled]. Although not widespread, we also found some older (and often female) interviewees to rely completely on others of a similar age and life-stage to use computers. Stewart (2002) has observed how the social division of labour means that some people do not need to fully ‘adopt’ computers but can, nevertheless, experience many of the benefits of computers through others. These sources of ‘computer use-by-proxy’ therefore precluded the need for individuals to directly


engage with a computer themselves. As one woman reasoned: “If I want something that could be on the internet then I’ll ask someone who has one. If not then I won’t bother” [female, 54 years, skilled non-manual]. Perhaps the most striking example of this use by proxy was a female interviewee who when working as a typist had never used a computer for anything but word-processing. Now, having retired, her husband operated the computer and left her only to type (as she described it, her husband “does the click-click” – i.e. operated the computer mouse) – a model of engagement mirroring her earlier use of computers in the workplace: “Well, I type. Once my husband can open it up … [At work] it wasn’t my position to sit at the thing and know its inner workings. There were very clever officers there whose job it was to do that … [At home] I say to Dennis, look – actually it’s down to him really because he does the clickclick. … If I want anything else I shout to Dennis and he can do it. We’re a partnership … There is no point in my spending the time learning how to do it, because I’m very well up-together traditionally – I can achieve the same ends just as quickly and just as thoroughly … Have you used the internet? We’ve done that ... Well, I haven’t done it, you know, because if I want anything I ask Dennis to go and do it [Female, 65 years, service]. Across the sample, others were most prominent in terms of supporting computer use in terms of how individuals’ learned to use computers. As with the acquisition process, the importance of informal social contact was prevalent. This was the case even when individuals had taken formal computer courses which, more often than not, was followed up and reinforced on an informal basis. For married couples the partner or spouse was sometimes cited as a source of support and learning. Although women tended to be more likely to rely on partners for support this was not always the case, as this man explained with regard to learning to use the Microsoft Word package: “My wife uses word processing, that’s her job. She’s a legal secretary. So my wife, she taught me the word processing part of it” [Male, 35 years, unskilled/other]. However, it is important to note that this familysupported informal learning was not necessarily empowering for the individuals concerned. As this woman recounted: My son came in with the computer and said why don’t you take this up mother … but he’s no good as a teacher, no patience …. oh my god he’s terrible at teaching, he loses his temper because he doesn’t realise that all these things are new to me. I just don’t know anything about it at all. [Female, 57 years, skilled non-manual] As before, there was a noticeable absence of non-family members in these accounts of informal learning. Although, as we have seen, neighbours and acquaintances were occasionally used as conduits for purchasing computers and gaining an initial orientation, there were few examples of computer-using networks of non-family members being developed and sustained beyond the initial orientation period. An example, atypical of our interview sample, of this extended building of ‘technological capital’ can be seen with this woman who was an extensive computer user and had developed rich networks of expertise which she could call upon when needed: [I’ve learnt] through other people who were interested. So when I got involved in the internet [at work], I learnt from other people who were good at the internet, and I would say, ‘how does that work?’ and they go, ‘well you do this and you do that…’ and they would explain that bit. Then I’d match that with knowledge I already had and then build on that. Then


someone would ask me, so I’d pass that information. And I think the whole thing becomes … if you share knowledge, you learn knowledge So who are these people? […] there are people who I know through my previous job where I had a hardware engineer, and if I wanted now to set up a web server, I would email Steve, because I know Steve would be good at that and he’d give me the right information. And if it was something that I hadn’t done before, I’d probably look on-line; I do research on-line … I would use newsgroups. [Female, 38 years, service] As this interviewee intimates, the workplace acted as a prominent site of learning from others; although again in more informal rather than formal ways. For most workers this work-based learning had been experienced not through formal training but through an ‘informal apprenticeship’ from peers. As this retired man explained, picking up computer skills ‘as you went along’ was a key source of learning; “you just picked it up through the bloke who was there that was [next to] you, you know. He just told you what to do” [Male, 63 years, skilled manual]. This process of ‘sitting-with-Nellie’ (Overwein 2000) was raised by many interviewees, from those in professional and managerial jobs as well as those employed in manual professions – as this university lecturer explained: So how have you learnt to use IT then? You sit at a computer, in a shared office, and ask ‘how does this work?’ – and somebody else would show me how it works. It’s wrong to do it that way, it’s wrong to only learn when you’ve got a problem. In theory, you should go on a training course to learn how to do it all. But in practice, I haven’t. [Female, 50 years, service] Discussion In recounting the importance of significant others in many adults’ acquisition and adoption of computers, our data also highlight the structuation and inequitable nature of much of this contact. Although a range of different social contacts were mentioned throughout our interview data, the ‘traditional’ nature of who was involved in most adults’ use of computers was striking. Most others were drawn predominantly from individuals’ existing social networks – especially close relatives or, to a lesser extent, the extended family. Although others were often used as important sources of information (especially in the initial stages of acquisition) they played vital roles in enabling and, in some cases, regulating individuals’ IT access. Many interviewees had benefited, for example, from the lending or borrowing of computer resources from others. On the other hand, the ongoing use of this hardware was then often subject to negotiated collaboration (or conflict) with the same others; with the outcome that IT was fitted around the existing dynamics and patterns of everyday life. Although not consistent, our data do point to the persistence of intergenerational relationships in many adults’ engagement with IT. Most of these intergenerational relationships were familial rather than extra-familial in nature. Above all, it was clear from our data that the geographies of intergenerational IT support were not homogenous, but varied between social groups and contexts - often shaped by the stage an individual was positioned in within the life course and their life circumstances. If generational segregation was apparent as a problem then this appeared to occur during the actual sustained engagement with IT - rather than the initial acquisition process (as implied in the ‘plonking’ comment from one of our older interviewees). However, it would be unwise to portray these patterns as somehow constituting ‘new’ forms of behaviour - with much of our data following familiar patterns of relationship between aged parents and adult children (Mancini


and Blieszner 1989). That said, in this respect the ‘handing down’ of computers from younger to older generations could be seen as a reverse sharing of culture between grandparents, parents and children (Wiscott and Kopera-Frye 2000), with technology traditions, beliefs, and customs being ‘passed up’ the family hierarchies. As such our data suggest that adults’ use of computers to be rooted in the patterns of everyday life as most other social activities. Whilst this observation may not seem to be especially note-worthy, the ‘ordinariness’ of adults’ (non)use of IT is often overlooked by social scientists. Despite the predominant discourses of the information society as a new epoch or somehow ‘different way of living’, adults’ (non)use of computers clearly continues to be shaped by the nuances and social formations of day-to-day social life. As such one of the key lessons to be learned from our data is how digital inequalities are mediated and supported through the existing inequitable social structures and institutions of the family, household, workplace and community. In this sense, the influence of significant others is apparent in the ‘digital divide’ far beyond crude terms of either ‘having’ or ‘not having’ access to a computer, or being a ‘user’ or a ‘non-user’, but in the subtleties and nuances of the nature and forms of adults’ engagement with IT. In this way, individuals’ engagement with IT looks set to be inevitably structured along the ‘abiding social fault lines’ of age, stage, gender and socio-economic status as long as society in general is structured along these lines (Golding 2000). Within this ‘ordinariness’, the reliance of most adults on close (and sometimes extended) family contacts between and across generations as opposed to the more formal sources of support in the workplace or community should not be seen as that surprising. As has been observed before, people are more likely to interact with others and seek advice from those they are close to; “people who know and trust each other are more likely to share personal information. If they have a background of shared experience, they can more easily convey that information, and responses are more likely to be interpreted as supportive” (Resnick 2002, p.254). With the computer, perhaps more so than any other consumer good, conforming to what is seen to be the societal norm of using IT can be a deeply personal (and potentially embarrassing) process - better shared with family members rather than friends or work colleagues. In many cases, a reliance on the family as the key context of becoming a computer user was clearly enabling for the adult concerned. For example, we found many enabling cases of self-help and informal support between family members (Williams and Windebank 2000). Thus many of our interviewees, of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds, had benefited from an on-going process of the recycling and informal redistribution of computers from the workplace to the family and from family member to family member. Given the rapid ‘hi-tech’ obsolescence of computers, older adults were often at the end of such recycling chains, with knowledgeable younger family members ‘setting them up’ and ‘sorting them out’. As such computer use was an area of social life where different members of the family were able to offer support and assistance; as was evident in the involvement of grown sons and daughters in older adults’ computer use. Whereas adult children’s involvement with older parents’ ‘activities of daily life’ (such as shopping, dressing or eating) tend to be restricted to individual children (Laditka and Laditka 2001, Lin et al. 2003), the computer appears to be a less committal area of assistance which more family members can be involved in with less of a sustained emotional obligation. There was sometimes a sense that assisting parents with IT use in this way conformed to the Durheimian norms of moral obligation often prevalent when people help their parents (Komter and Vollebergh 2002). This notion of supporting others’ IT use as a ‘should’ rather than a ‘want’ (Janoff-Bulman and Leggatt 2002) could be seen as a reflection of the cultural notion referred to at the beginning of the paper of IT use as a practical necessity of survival in contemporary society. On other occasions there were hints that such


acts of support from others were not necessarily altruistic but, instead, attempts to confirm the validity of one’s own computer use (for example, the attempts to ‘force’ computers onto family or friends). Both sets of motivations can be seen to partially explain the short-term obligation of many adult sons and daughters in their parents’ IT use; their involvement often stopping after the initial acquisition of the computer and basic orientation period. Whilst pointing out the all-too apparent continuities between the inequalities of people’s (non)engagement with IT and the inherent inequalities in their general day-to-day lives, of ultimate concern from a social science perspective is the likely self-perpetuating nature of these inequalities. There is a danger, as Resnick (2002, p.248) reasons, that inequalities associated with the role of others in an adult’s use of IT “like many other aspects of social life, is not only produced but reproduced”. As we have discussed, the inequalities which tend to occur throughout the domestication of the computer into the individual’s everyday life were often contingent on the pre-existing imbalance of the relationships involved; e.g. between children and parents or between male partners and female partners. The likely persistence and perpetual nature of these inequalities can therefore be seen as following the logic of social capital in general (Lichter et al. 2002). For example, the ‘homophily principle’ – that similarity breeds connection – was in evidence in the IT-related connections within our data and reflects the wider finding that people’s personal networks tend to be homogenous with regard to many socio-demographic, behavioural and intrapersonal characteristics such as gender, social status, educational background and values. Although similarity may well be a preferable criterion of who supports you to use a computer due to issues of familiarity and comfort, only relying on similar others for IT support is likely to “limit people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form and the interactions they experience” (McPherson et al. 2001, p.415). That said, there were brief signs, worthy of further investigation, of how IT was being used to disrupt or subvert preexisting inequalities. For example some interviewees’ use of others as substitute users of IT - what we termed as ‘use-by-proxy’ - could be seen as an empowering use of others. As Gray (1992) describes with regard to the video recorder, women can sometimes use or exaggerate their technical inability to make male partners contribute to domestic duties – making such apparently submissive behaviour a ‘tactic of resistance’ within the household. Thus to portray ITs merely as a site of disempowerment for older adults is to ignore the subtleties of the interactions behind their (non)use. Conclusion Significant others are undoubtedly integral components of how adults adopt and engage with ITs such as the computer - both between and within generations. Within adults’ tendency to rely on family members, a range of empowering and disempowering effects can be highlighted; often replicating but occasionally subverting the pre-existing power dynamics of familial and household relationships. The ambiguous nature of others’ involvement was especially noticeable in then (non)engagement with ITs by older adults, women and/or those from lower socio-economic backgrounds – social groups traditionally associated with lower levels of use of IT within the digital divide discourse. In highlighting the importance of life-stage it is unlikely that these patterns will alter as more technology-savvy generations age (as some commentators are wont to suggest). Indeed, older adults’ non-use of ICT is not simply about advanced age and lack of technological know-how per se. Instead it hinges more around the circumstances often associated with particular life-stages and ages – e.g. lower income, impaired physicality, narrowing social circles as well as the politics, cultures and personal preferences of different age-groups (Jæger 2005). In this sense it is foolhardy for younger generations to assume that they themselves may not face a similar


predicament in their older years, with old age looking set to be a more enduringly divisive factor than some current commentators would like to believe. Thus whilst people’s preference for seeking and receiving help from family members will undoubtedly continue, how informal support networks can be supported outside of kinship networks requires further consideration. Until then, significant others look set to continue in assisting but often restricting adults’ IT use and thereby contributing to the subtle continuities of ‘digital divided’ societies.

Footnotes [1] This paper is based upon a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council [R000239518]. The author would like to thank Stephen Gorard and John Furlong as well as the individuals who took part in the in-depth interviews. [2] Interviewees are described using data derived from the initial household survey. The socio-economic identifiers are based upon the Registrar General occupational status categories used in the UK (for ease of use these have been collapsed into the five categories of: ‘service’, ‘skilled non-manual’, ‘skilled manual’, ‘partly skilled’, ‘unskilled/other’).

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